TOKYO – During the Cold War, the term “Kremlinology” referred to efforts to understand what was taking place at the commanding heights of the Soviet Union – indeed, behind the entire Iron Curtain. Kremlinologists monitored (in whatever way possible) who was up and who was down among the core Soviet leadership. Great significance was read into who signed an official document, or who stood where atop Lenin’s Tomb in Red Square when reviewing military parades.
All of that was grammar-school stuff compared to efforts to decipher the regime in North Korea, where the truth is far more opaque.
Consider what happened on December 17. Choe Ryong-hae, Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Korean Workers’ Party, was conspicuously present on stage at the commemoration of the second anniversary of “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il’s death – the first major ceremony following the purge and execution of Jang Song-thaek, the former vice chairman of the National Defense Commission. Choe’s speech, with its threats against the United States and South Korea, seemed to set the stage for his political elevation.
Jang Song-thaek had been seen as a kind of regent to Kim Jong-un, the young successor to the Kim family dynasty, and was thought to be number two in the regime. But he owed his position to his wife, Kim Kyong-hui, the only sister of Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s deceased father.
Jang’s tact, as well as his usefulness as an interlocutor with China, enabled him to keep his position, despite his long-term separation from his wife. But in North Korea, blood is paramount: everything, including ideology and the national interest, is subservient to the maintenance of the Kim dynasty. The “legacy” of the “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung and his son, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il, determines all major decisions.
I have long believed that the true holder of power since Kim Jong-il’s death has been his sister, Kim Kyong-hui, and no one else. North Korean culture would suggest that women do not take positions of leadership, but it appears that she was the only family member whom Kim Jong-il could trust. When he was incapacitated by illness, it was she who called the shots.
Her blood tie to the Kim dynasty is the reason why, even after her husband was purged and executed (and the rest of his family rounded up), she maintained her political position. It has even been suggested that she made the decision to purge her husband. Though it cannot be known whether she also proposed killing him, it is not surprising that she believed that, with her own health failing, she could not leave the family dynasty to her husband’s care.
Perhaps the most chilling aspect of Jang’s execution is that it appears to be part of a feeding frenzy that has claimed the lives of a number of senior officials and generals. And the bloodletting has been extremely personal: In August, Kim Jong-un reportedly ordered the execution by firing squad of an ex-girlfriend and other members of her musical ensemble; the killings are said to have been carried out in front of their families.
Elsewhere in the communist world, such murderous purges were renounced long ago, first in the Soviet Union by Khrushchev, following his denunciation of Stalin, and then in China by Deng Xiaoping, following his rehabilitation and return to power in the late 1970’s. This “reform” did not make these regimes any more beneficent or efficient, but it did bring a degree of stability and predictability to their behavior. North Korea, always the least predictable of totalitarian communist states, remains in a twilight world.
More disturbing is the question of whether China is going down a parallel path under President Xi Jinping. Ever since Deng’s rule, there has been an understanding that members of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo are not to be touched, even in retirement. But Xi, under the pretext of his anti-corruption battle, has targeted retired Politburo member Zhou Yongkang, who is now reportedly under house arrest, facing graft charges – and lurid allegations not only that he murdered his first wife but that he tried to assassinate Xi.
China’s emphasis since Deng on rule by consensus may not have made the country any more democratic, but it at least prevented the re-emergence of a new cult of personality à la Mao Zedong. The question today is whether Xi’s flouting of this internal party convention is another step in re-creating one-man – and thus completely arbitrary – rule in China.
In North Korea, of course, arbitrary rule – no matter how bizarre and inept – is always the norm. And now, with Jang purged, responsibility for economic failure in North Korea has been shifted to Choe. All officials and people related to him now live under the shadow of the executioner, for he is certain to bear the blame when the dynasty needs a scapegoat for its mounting problems.
And Jang’s purge may make those problems worse. While China lost a convenient point of contact with the Kim regime, North Korea may have lost the only channel by which to sustain itself. The economy cannot be revived so long as international sanctions are maintained, and the sanctions seem certain to remain in place so long as the regime continues with its nuclear brinkmanship. China, which has been the Kim dynasty’s lifeline, no longer appears willing to offer it a blank check.
So the day is fast approaching when Kim Jong-un and his clan will have to take responsibility for the country’s dire condition, and it may come soon after Kim Kyong-hui dies. If so, the Kim dynasty’s last chapter may have begun with the current spasm of executions, though the ending – for the Korean Peninsula and East Asia alike – remains very much in doubt.